It’s always good to see homage paid to “The Night of the Hunter,” one of the greatest of all American films, and Dutch writer-director Martin Koolhoven’s doom-laden Western does so in spades; some of the compositions and lines of dialogue (and not merely the scriptural ones), especially in the final reel, are obvious reminiscences. Comparison of “Brimstone” to Charles Laughton’s masterpiece, however, merely demonstrates that while imitation may be the highest form of flattery, flattery alone is not quite enough.
That’s not to say that “Brimstone” is without virtues. Visually it’s as striking as Sergio Leone’s westerns were, though in a different way: Rogier Stoffers’ lush widescreen images, coupled with Koolhoven’s languid pacing and Job ter Burg’s deliberate editing (which extend the picture to epic length at 2½ hours), create a dreamlike atmosphere that can be intoxicating. Guy Pearce also contributes a grimly intense performance as a sinister preacher who may not have “Love” and “Hate” inscribed on his hands but espouses a theology similar to that of Robert Mitchum’s Harry Powell in “Hunter.”
But there are major differences between the films. While Davis Grubbs’ narrative was about the abuse of children, Koolhoven’s is about that of women, and while Laughton created a dark, fairy-tale mood of menace, Koolhoven, in a far more modern mode, is explicit in ways the older film was not. Laughton’s “Hunter” relished changes in style, moreover, and “Brimstone” is pretty consistent in that respect. And while Laughton’s film was chronologically conventional, telling its tale from first to last, Koolhoven opts for a temporally jagged approach that, in the end, seems more an affectation than a revelatory technique.
The film is divided into four parts, titled “Revelation,” “Exodus,” “Genesis” and “Retribution.” In the first, Liz (Dakota Fanning) is the wife of a kindly farmer, a widower named Eli (William Houston), caring for her stepson Matthew (Jack Hollington) and their younger daughter Sam (Ivy George). She is also a midwife. There suddenly appears at the local church The Preacher (Pearce), a terribly scarred man who delivers a fire-and-brimstone sermon as Liz listens with discomfort. Subsequently she has to try to deliver a baby on the floor of the church when a pregnant parishioner suddenly goes into labor. Liz has to decide whether the baby or the woman will survive, and chooses the latter. The Preacher accuses her of interfering with God’s right to determine who lives and who dies, and that brings a furious response from the father of the dead infant and from The Preacher himself, who all too eagerly punishes Liz in a roundabout way.
The second segment, “Exodus,” takes us into the past, beginning with a young girl named Joanna (Emilia Jones) fleeing a farm and, after she collapses, being brought by a passing family of Chinese immigrants to a nearby town. There she is inducted into a brothel associated with a place called the Inferno, run by a slimy fellow named Frank (Paul Anderson), who cruelly punishes any employees who fail to accede to his customers’ requirements. One of those customers, it turns out, is The Preacher, and Joanna’s gruesome encounter with him there—and a terrible decision she takes as a result of it—will set the stage for the events of “Revelation.”
“Genesis,” the next chapter, goes further back in time, to when The Preacher was wed to Anna (Carice van Houten), whom he treats with dictatorial brutality while lusting after their daughter, who is on the cusp of young womanhood. The intervention of a handsome outlaw (Kit Harington) seems to offer possible escape from a situation that is a cesspool of cruelty, misogyny and potential incest, but the hope that he offers proves to be illusory in the face of The Preacher’s almost demonic power.
Finally there is “Retribution,” which takes up where “Revelation” left off, with mute Liz, along with Matthew and Sam, trekking through the snow to the remote cabin where Eli’s father lives. As it turns out, however, they are not alone on the trail, and a final confrontation between the woman and her tormentor is inevitable. Even after it, however, Liz’s troubles are not over, and the film will close with an older Sam reflecting back on her mother’s heroic suffering.
From all this it’s clear that the main theme of “Brimstone” is the brutal treatment of women, but that theme is associated with another—how such abuse is facilitated by a dark form of Christianity represented by The Preacher. In conveying these ideas, Koolhoven exults in the opportunity to make the explosions of violence along the way as graphic and unsettling as possible. Multiple hangings occur, but one “private” example is so prolonged and graphic that it’s difficult not to turn away. Women of all ages are not only subjected to repeated whippings, but on two occasions the narrative involves their tongues being cut off. And that list omits the instances in which people are shot or slashed and we watch them slowly bleed out. For all the elegance of the visuals, they are often put to horrible use.
If one can put up with such carefully composed, artfully extended grotesquerie, however, the film remains morbidly fascinating even over so long a span. Pearce’s performance is mannered in the extreme, but so was Mitchum’s in “Hunter,” while Fanning does some of her most impressive work to date, especially when one notes that she stepped into the role shortly before shooting began when the original star withdrew. The rest of the cast have less opportunity to shine, but they do what Koolhoven asks of them with obvious commitment to his vision, and the technical team similarly responds with a high standard of artistry. Tom Holkenborg’s score, based on hymn motifs, is gloomily foreboding.
“Brimstone” is a grim portrayal of unremitting brutality against women exacerbated by perverted religious belief, whose extraordinary stylishness doesn’t entirely compensate for its underlying unpleasantness. But it’s hard to take your eyes off it.